History and Philosophy of Psychology Section


by Fraser Watts

History and Philosophy of Psychology is an inherently interdisciplinary enterprise, and in this blog I want to tease some of the complex issues that arise about that.

Both the history of psychology, and the study of philosophical issues in psychology, are interdisciplinary endeavours in the obvious sense that they are the study of one discipline from the perspective of another.  However, I will want to argue that, rather than pursuing the historical and philosophical study of psychology separately, there is much to be gained from bringing them into close relationship. That raises the interdisciplinarity involved to a higher order, so that it becomes the triangulation on psychology from the combined perspective of two other disciplines (and perhaps other humanities disciplines too).  There are further issues that arise from history and philosophy of psychology being pursued both by psychologists and, in a slightly different way, by historians and philosophers, with the consequent need to bring those different approaches into dialogue.

There is a danger that when any discipline is pursued with single-minded enthusiasm it loses critical perspective. Once promising lines of enquiry can become cull de sacs that are followed with huge energy, but in a rather myopic way, that does not really lead anywhere, and which puzzles later generations. For example, the study of ‘learning theory’ was once seen as the centre-piece of scientific psychology, but in the twenty-first century it has sunk almost without trace. I would argue that disciplines are less likely to get into that kind of rut if they have the benefit of the broader perspective than multidisciplinarity (such as the history and philosophy of psychology) can provide.

As I have said, I also believe there is much to be gained from bringing the history and philosophy of psychology together. A narrow history of psychology that ignores intellectual history can become little more than an archival chronicle of what psychologists have done. That archiving is an indispensible resource for the history of psychology, but I would hope we could go further and look at how changing conceptualisations have shaped the development of psychology, and that brings the history of psychology into contact with philosophy.

Equally, the philosophical study of psychology cannot ignore how the conceptualisations that underpin psychology are historically and culturally contingent. There is no once-for-all philosophy of psychology that takes a ‘view from nowhere’ (in Thomas Nagel’s famous phrase). Ways of conceptualising human nature change, and conceptualisations of psychology itself are ever-shifting. Recognizing that leads the philosophical study of psychology to become historical too.

There are other disciplines that can be brought into the mix too. In medicine there has recently been the development of ‘medical humanities’, involving a range of disciplines that can be brought to bear in the study of medicine. According to Wikipedia, medical humanities is an interdisciplinary field of medicine which includes the humanities (literature, philosophy, ethics, history and religion), social science (anthropology, cultural studies, psychology, sociology, health geography) and the arts (literature, theatre, film, and visual arts) and their application to medical education and practice. There is much to be said for a comparable broadening of the history and philosophy of psychology to the study of psychology from the perspective of the humanities, broadly conceived. Though there may be good reasons for prioritising history and philosophy, other disciplines have a contribution to make too.

I turn now to the different approaches of the psychologist and non-psychologists (historians, philosophers and others). This is a matter of some practical importance in the UK, as HPP currently seems to be more lively among non-psychologists than psychologists; in that regard the situation is quite different from what it was a decade or two ago. If HPP is to thrive within psychology it needs to create structures that enable it to work in collaboration with comparable studies by non-psychologists. Otherwise, there just isn’t the necessary critical mass.

Apart from that, I suggest that there is a helpful complementarity between the contributions of psychologists and non-psychologists to HPP. It is basically the distinction between ‘insiders’ and ‘outsiders’, one that has proved helpful methodologically in a number of fields. Psychologists obviously bring to HPP a rich familiarity and intuitive sympathy that it is hard for non-psychologists to match. However, professional historians and philosophers often bring to HPP a wider set of research skills than psychologists, and are better equipped to put the study of psychology in a wider context.

Psychologists are often interested exclusively in study and practice with what has been explicitly labelled as ‘psychology’. However, there has been extensive engagement with what is, in effect, recognizable as psychology, even if it is not labelled as such. The development of something labelled as ‘psychology’ is perhaps the most interesting phenomenon for HPP to study, and it is something that has had far-reaching consequences. However, it is easier to recognize just how significant that development has been if the net is cast wider, and includes de-facto psychology, even when not so labelled. Non-psychologists seem to find it easier than psychologists to work with those broader horizons. However, my main point here is the fruitfulness in HPP of getting psychologists and non-psychologists to work more closely together, in a complementary way.

Fri, 21/07/2017 - 11:59

by Fraser Watts

It seems appropriate to begin my editorship of this periodical with some reflections on the nature of the history and philosophy of psychology, and the issues and challenges it currently faces in the UK. The BPS History and Philosophy Section, and this periodical, has a broad vision of what the History and Philosophy of Psychology consists of. We also think that history and philosophy are of critical importance of psychology as a whole; in this editorial I will explain why.

History: Getting good documentation about the history of psychology involves not only building up better archives, and documenting who has done what, when and where. It also getting better at telling the story of how psychology has developed. It is particularly helpful to put the development of psychological research and practice in the context of changing assumptions and paradigms in psychology. That leads on, in turn, to broader questions about how the development of psychology has reflected wider trends in the history of ideas, and how psychology has impacted on wider society. We need, not only to study the history of psychology in ways that are of interest to psychologists, but also to explain the wider social significance of the history of psychology. The modern history of psychology as a discipline and profession can fruitfully be studied from the perspective of the social sciences.

It is also important to remember that there was a long period of systematic exploration and practical wisdom about what we would now call ‘psychology’ before that term was much used. That is of interest too, and should not be neglected. The development of something called ‘psychology’ is one of the most interesting developments in the history of the exploration of psychological phenomena. There may be things of enduring value in how psychological processes and phenomena were conceptualised and handled before we had ‘psychologists’, and the perspectives of the earlier period may continue to exercise more influence than is often realised.

Philosophy: Lines of scientific enquiry and patterns of professional practice in psychology are determined to a significant extent by background philosophical assumptions. That seems to be true of every science. Psychology has already been through a number of  ‘paradigm shifts’, such as the rise and fall of behaviourism, in which background assumptions have changed quite radically. The story of psychology in the twentieth century is roughly one of shrinkage and constriction, followed by broadening and emancipation. The philosophy of psychology is committed to making assumptions about the nature of psychology more explicit, understanding their origin and significance, and subjecting them to critical examination.

 It is one of the distinctive features of psychology that it is both a natural and a human or interpretative science. It considers biological, individual and social aspects of how humans function, and tries to hold all that together in a single integrated endeavour. The philosophy of psychology also includes a more explicit consideration of the ethics of psychology, placing the ethical issues with which psychology has to grapple in the broader intellectual context of philosophical ethics.

CHIP (Critical and Philosophical Issues): History and philosophy are important for the whole of psychology, because they are the disciplines that promote a critical perspective and enable psychologists to achieve critical distance from what they are doing. Achieving that critical distance involves asking fundamental questions in a way that is searching, rigorous and well-informed. Without critical distance, it is all too easy for psychology to simply persist with current lines of enquiry and patterns of practice, regardless of how fruitful they actually are. It is a secondary matter whether that critique leads to a search for a new direction; but a critical perspective provides a springboard for considering how psychology might be re-envisaged in the years ahead as assumptions about the nature of psychology continue to change.

The Section welcome the fact that CHIP is required to be taught in every undergraduate psychology degree in the UK. However, we are concerned that not all Heads of Departments see it as a priority area, and that it is often not well resourced. The Section hopes to support the BPS in raising the profile and standards of CHIP in British psychology. The special issue of this periodical edited by Peter Hegarty, Katherine Hubbard and Lovemore Nyatanga last year (Voumel16, number 1) provided a valuable assessment of the teaching of CHIP in the UK, and suggestions about how it might be developed.

Wider Significance: Though the history and philosophy of psychology is partly a field of specialist interest like any other area of psychology, it is unlike any other area in being important for the whole of psychology. We are aware that the history and philosophy of psychology is currently a relatively weak area in Britain. Some of the key founding figures have now retired, including Elizabeth Valentine who did such an excellent job of editing this periodical over many years, and to whom I am much indebted.

It is probably fair to say that in the UK the history and philosophy of psychology currently lags behind how this area is handled in some other countries, such as Canada. British psychology sets standards of excellence in most areas but, sadly, not currently in history and philosophy.  This raises important organisational issues. The Section would not be doing justice to its field if it simply catered for those with a specialist interest. We want to develop new ways in which the Section can work collaboratively with other parts of the BPS. That includes, not only parts of the BPS like the History of Psychology Centre with which we have obvious links, but with every subsystem of the BPS, raising awareness everywhere of the importance of a critical perspective, and of the contribution history and philosophy can make.

Email: [email protected]
Websites: frasernwatts.com

Thu, 13/04/2017 - 10:29


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